Last year, a 61-year-old woman was killed in Oklahoma City after a 20-year-old man talking on his cell phone ran through a red light at 45 miles per hour and hit her car. The young man said he had been so distracted by his phone conversation that he did not realize the light had turned red.
Unfortunately, car accidents like this one are not unique and happen every day – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80% of car accidents are caused by driver inattention. But what is novel about this case is who is being sued for the accident. The daughter of the deceased driver, Jennifer Smith, is not suing the 20-year-old who hit her mother, but rather is pursuing a product liability claim against the responsible driver's cell phone manufacturer and service provider, Samsung and Sprint-Nextel. Smith's legal theory is that these two companies knew of the danger posed by their products and failed to adequately warn consumers.
A similar legal claim was brought against Cingular in 2003 following an Indiana accident. The state court, however, dismissed the case after finding that the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the cell phone company was non-existent and that the accident itself was unforeseeable by Cingular.
Holding Inattentive Drivers Accountable in Virginia Courts
The courts have not determined whether an injured party could successfully bring this sort of claim in Virginia. Unlike many other states, Virginia does not have what is known as a "Dram Shop Act." These acts or laws generally impose civil liability on bars, restaurants and other establishments that serve alcohol to drivers who then cause an accident injuring or killing another person after leaving the establishment. With the Virginia legislature unwilling to impose a legal relationship between those serving alcohol and the victims of an accident with one of their patrons, it is unknown if the courts would find a legal duty existing between a phone company or service provider and an accident victim. This issue will almost certainly be determined in the near future and an injured victim's attorney should always attempt to determine if the negligent driver was distracted by cellular phone use.
While claims against cellular service providers may not be presently available, drivers who are injured in an accident caused by an inattentive driver still have legal options in Virginia. Most notably, these drivers have the right to bring a civil claim against the responsible driver for their losses, including medical expenses, lost wages and physical pain and suffering as well as mental anguish. Families who have lost a loved one due to the acts of a distracted driver may bring a wrongful death claim against the driver. Either one of these actions is separate from any criminal proceedings against the driver responsible for causing the accident.
Cell Phones, Texting Leading Cause of Driver Distraction
The two most dangerous causes of driver distraction are cell phone use and texting. A recent study conducted by the University of Utah found that drivers who text while driving are six times more likely to be involved in a car accident than non-distracted drivers. The study concluded that texting while driving requires more driver attention than cell-phone use, with texters experiencing a 30 percent reduction in reaction times versus a nine percent reduction in reaction times for cell-phone users.
The study attributed the difference in reaction time to the ability of the drivers to switch back and forth between the tasks and driving. The study found that drivers who talk on cell phones are more adept at dividing their attention between each activity. Those who text, however, are not able to divide their attention but instead must focus all of their attention on texting and then switch back to focus on driving, making for much slower reaction times.
The University of Utah study comes on the heels of a study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which found that texting while driving is a more dangerous activity than drinking and driving. The Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations study found that texting while driving raises a driver's crash risk by 23 times.
The results of these two studies and others have resulted in a national emphasis on cracking down on those who read and send text messages while driving. According to the Governor's Highway Safety Association, 19 states and the District of Columbia currently ban text messaging for all drivers. Virginia passed its state-wide texting ban this past summer. The federal government also is considering passing a national texting ban in the next year that would withhold federal transportation dollars from any state that did not pass a conforming ban.
Whether a driver was distracted by a phone call, text message or for another reason, if the driver causes an accident that harms or kills another person, the driver should be held responsible for his or her acts. In Virginia, those injured in car accidents have the right to bring a personal injury claim against the responsible driver for their losses.
For more information on your legal options following an accident with a distracted driver, contact an experienced attorney at KFFJ Law today.